Putney Swope is an unbelievable movie, not so much as a praise, but as an earnest, “I can’t believe this movie was made.” And yet Robert Downey Sr’s film survived and has made a lasting reputation as one of the strangest, innovative movies, leaving its traces of influence on American surrealism.
It barely made it to the audience of its own time. In a discussion with Paul Thomas Anderson, Downey often recounts, “Nobody wanted that film.” They were showing it to the last round of distributors when one of them came late and started banging on the door. Downey had said, “Fuck him, he’s late whoever he is,” But they ended up letting him in. Every distributor passed on it, except for the latecomer, Don Rugolf. He told Downey, “I don’t understand it, but I like it.”
Putney Swope is an anything-goes kind of movie partly because of the constraints of a young filmmaker in New York City. Downey speaks fondly of the logistical and budgetary hijinks. They could only shoot in one room of an office in the opening scene, so they had to hide all the characters who appear mid-scene through under the table, and vice versa.
Downey reported they were starting to get behind schedule and funding in part because the main character could not remember his lines. His editor assured him it was okay, they could just dub over it.
That kind of creative relaxation runs through the movie as a whimsical stream of consciousness, with non-sequiturs, and absurd lines of dialogue. One of them is a brief, seemingly unprompted retelling of Christopher Columbus finding America. To which, the client replies, “That’s the most fantastic thing I’ve ever heard. Who’s your shrink?”
As a surrealist, Downey was inspired by Italian filmmakers of the 60’s and the French New Wave, especially Goddard. You can see Downey’s brand of absurdism reincarnated in the 80’s with Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and David Lynch’s less comedic, but similarly surreal Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, or Twin Peaks.
Like Gilliam’s famous satire on bureaucracy, Putney Swope has its target pegged on the racially-biased advertising industry by flipping its racism on its head. Its inception came from real life. As a young creative in advertisement, a black coworker told Downey he was making more than him for doing the same job. When they brought it to the attention of the boss, he said what Putney tells the “token” white employee, “If I give you a raise, everybody’s gonna want a raise and then I would have to give them a raise and then they’ll be making more money than you. And we’ll be right back where we started.”
Lynch and Downey may not share a similar end goal, but they do have similar surrealistic styles. They have a similar ear for the rhythm of a scene, especially In Twin Peaks, Leo Johnson spits and says “New shoes” over and over again. Leland Palmer (played by Ray Wise) often sings and re-sings “Mairzy Doats” after his hair turns white.
At the beginning of Putney Swope, the stuttering Chairman of the Board of an advertising agency struggles with a sentence and the board turns into a game of charades without realizing he’s having a stroke. The oldest, smallest member of the board keeps shouting, “Four syllables, Mario?” even after everyone else realizes he has died on the boardroom table.
Despite its improbable fame, Putney Swope has directly influenced two of today’s most praised entertainers, Paul Thomas Anderson and Louis C.K. Anderson told Marc Maron, “Putney Swope changed my life,” to which Maron replied, “Same with Louis!” Even so, Downey’s influence isn’t so immediately present. Anderson is known for his patient, serious period pieces with a sincere exploration of his character’s psychological states, not irreverent satires.
One shot, however, points to Downey’s influence. In a WTF podcast with Marc Maron, Anderson recounted, “I basically just got the idea for the firecracker scene from Robert. I called him and asked if I could use it and he said, ‘Good.'” The scene comes near the end of Boogie Nights as Eddie (played by Mark Wahlberg) attends a drug deal gone bad. Their dealer (Alfred Molina) throws firecrackers inside his house, showing off his recklessness and putting his guests on edge.
In Putney Swope, it’s a Chinese businessman who throws them in the lobby of Swope’s advertising agency. It’s a slapstack gag to keep the viewer off-balance and mock the unreality of the advertising world. Anderson uses this action not so much to depart from reality, but to add an appropriate surreal quality to a scene. We understand Eddy’s expression when Jessie’s Girl plays. He’s thinking, “Where am I and how did I get here?”
Other surrealistic elements crop up in Anderson’s work thanks to Downey. The mysterious harmonium in Punk-Drunk Love, for example, the rain of frogs in Magnolia, or Lancaster Dodd breaking out into song at the end of The Master.
Downey’s influence on C.K. has been present ever since he and Marc Maron found Putney Swope in a bin at the video store after buying a VHS player. “I saw Putney Swope with this middle finger with a person [on the box cover]. I was like, “What is this?”
Its effect on C.K. is especially evident in his early stand-up career where he was going for a more absurd brand of comedy. But even as he transitioned into a more mainstream comic, he incorporated the crude, surreal perspective like that of Putney Swope onto his subjects. One of his most famous bits, for example, departs quickly from reality to black humor, as he strangles a baby to appease an annoyed businessman on a plane.
But Putney Swopes’s influence is perhaps the most similar in C.K.’s tv show, Louis, in which C.K. plays a fictionalized version of himself in a world that flies into Swope-esque surrealism without notice. In one scene, a group of loud garbagemen on Louis’ street appear in his house to bang lids as he tries to sleep. In another, he tries to kiss a woman who then leaves via a helicopter.
Louis also followed in Downey’s cinematic footsteps by making creative casting choices. Louis features a mother who isn’t the same ethnicity as her children and a brother who looks nothing like Louis. C.K. says he just didn’t care about those things and casted who he wanted.
Downey did the same. He often found quirky actors at restaurants, on the street, or in Stan Gottlieb’s case, a phone booth. He also cast a little person to play as President Richard Nixon in Putney Swope. When asked why on the Johnny Carson show, he answered, “‘Cause he gave the best reading.”
The casting, the dialogue, the story. It was all clearly a filmmaker doing exactly what he wanted. And for many, he struck a creative chord. C.K. remembered his initial reaction to Putney Swope. “I put it in and I started watching and in the first couple of shots, I was like “Oh my God.” And the whole movie, I just kept going, ‘Oh my God! Somebody made this movie.”
“They didn’t just sit and go, ‘this would be crazy.’ They actually shot it.” C.K. said. Anderson recalled the same thing when asked what it was about Putney Swope. “Holy shit, you can do this? You can talk like this? You can insult everyone? You can be political? And it was funny first.”
That kind of creativity and will didn’t just influence his creative vision, it inspired C.K. to pick up the camera himself. “Days later, I started pulling together little bits of money to make a movie. I started making movies, started making short films and just doing it. This movie was a direct reason why I believed it was worth doing stuff that maybe didn’t seem so easy to sell or to talk somebody else into.”
Surrealism is coming back into mainstream today. Twin Peaks has been revived and Lynchian absurdism is back on tv once again. Atlanta, written and starred by Donald Glover, plays similar surreal games and makes thought-provoking casting decisions, and even includes fake commercials like Putney Swope (though they call their show the “black Twin Peaks.“)
But Putney Swope has stayed fresh. Almost fifty years after Swope’s release, a 16-year-old prefaced his question to Downey by saying, “I love seeing cool new shit like this.”